Democracy Lab

Development Shouldn't Give Democracy the Cold Shoulder

Why it’s time to include democracy in global development goals.

On May 30, 2013, a group of experts will present recommendations to the U.N. Secretary-General on the post-2015 development agenda. The meeting is being called to decide on what happens to global development after the deadline passes for the heavily-touted Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). One of the buzz phrases that have emerged from the High-Level Panel is "people-centered" development. But will the panel take its own jargon seriously and listen to the call from people around the world for honest and responsive government?

One of the strongest global trends today is the empowerment of citizens and their desire for dignity and freedom. As governments prepare for what should replace the MDGs, they should take this into account. But don't hold your breath. Two recent surveys conducted by the United Nations to inform the discussion of the post-2015 agenda provide a striking demonstration of the widening gap between citizens and their governments.

One of these is the U.N.-sponsored online survey known as Myworld. So far more than half a million citizens in 194 countries have voted in the survey, and the results show that "honest and responsive government" consistently ranks among the top three developmental priorities cited by respondents as desirable for their own countries. In the other survey undertaken among U.N. member state governments by the U.N. Secretary-General for the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development, "good governance" ranks bizarrely as only 25th out of 32 priorities listed. The disparity between the surveys' initial results are illustrative of a wider trend where citizens see democratic governance as a major priority, while governments don't.

Keeping this in mind, there three are three main reasons why the High-Level Panel report should make sure that it includes democracy in its recommendations for the new development framework:

First, nothing matters more for development than national politics. As pointed out by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, anyone who doubts the importance of national institutions and national policies need only look at the history of the two Koreas, which had the same economic starting point seven decades ago. Today, South Korea has a booming economy, high levels of education, and a life expectancy of 79 years, according to the World Health Organization. In North Korea, life expectancy is 64 years and the economy has stagnated under dictatorship. Open, democratic, and competitive politics with institutions that place constraints on power are far more likely to uphold the rule of law, protect property rights, and provide an inclusive market economy that limits corruption and provides opportunity for all.

Second, this critical importance of national politics is only enhanced by the fact that trade, investment, and remittances are rapidly dwarfing traditional aid as vehicles for economic development. The world is waving goodbye to the old "donor-recipient" paradigm, in which the western world provides aid to support developing countries with a top-down approach regardless of local context. The demise of this outdated model should be welcomed. Much like democratic institutions, economic growth and social development can only be sustained if built from within societies, determined by choices made by citizens and the leaders they choose. Recent experience in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan has shown that democratic development cannot be imposed from outside; there is little evidence to suggest that economic development can be forced by external intervention, either. The post-2015 development agenda needs to reflect this major global shift with a focus on building sound and sustainable democratic institutions and processes.

Third, it is actually possible to translate the global call from citizens for more honest and responsive government into a specific and measurable post-2015 goal on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. There could be a common set of indicators for checking progress on the basis of respect for civil and political rights, participation, and equality. Countries could also choose from a menu of region-specific indicators based on measurements of individual country compliance with international agreements on human rights combined with citizen-based assessment (provided, as the name suggests, by citizens who measure the democratic development of their own countries).

Citizen-based assessment is already being used in several countries. For example, when the current eight Millennium Development Goals were adopted, the government of Mongolia elected to adopt a ninth one of its own, on democracy. The Mongolians developed specific indicators in order to measure progress in categories such as corruption, participation by civil society in decision-making, access to legal services, and, public sector transparency. In addition, Mongolia has commissioned regular independent citizen assessments to measure progress.

The relevance of democracy for development is also fundamental for the U.N.-led process leading to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), one of the main outcomes of the Rio + 20 Conference on Sustainable Development held in Brazil last year. The aim of the SDGs is to ensure that the new global development framework will incorporate social, economic, and environmental sustainability. Strong democratic institutions and processes are essential to achieving these ends.

Even though several countries have managed to achieve economic development without much democracy, democracy is essential if such development is to prove sustainable. Democracy and development are mutually reinforcing -- and that's why the new development goals also need to be democracy goals.    

MICHELE SIBILONI/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Ready, Fire, Aim

Why the U.S. should have launched an ICBM during the North Korean crisis.

Even good intentions can backfire, as the Pentagon has just been reminded. In April, amid constant threats of nuclear war from Pyongyang, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel decided to postpone the regularly scheduled test-firing of a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile from Vandenberg Air Force Base. North Korea, it was feared, could misinterpret the launch either as a blunt show of resolve, which could have further escalated the crisis, or, less likely, as an actual attack which could have provoked god-knows-what. But, ironically, the decision to delay -- and to announce it very publicly -- may have created more problems for Washington than it solved.

At the time of Hagel's directive to stand down, North Korea was threatening to strike U.S. territories and allies with nuclear weapons, and it was taking its mobile-missile launchers for a joyride. During the crisis, the United States intentionally used military maneuvers as deterrence messages to Pyongyang. In response to these moves, such as B-52 overflights of the peninsula, the Kim regime's tantrum grew louder and louder. So it is understandable that the Pentagon would have been eager to avoid having one of its Minuteman launches perpetuate this escalatory spiral.

But, despite the Pentagon's insistence that the routine Minuteman test had nothing to do with North Korea and could therefore be delayed without consequence, the postponement created the opposite impression. Minuteman launches don't usually make a splash (at least not outside the South Pacific, where they come down), but international media attention to the test, which finally took place on May 22, has been unusually high. In South Korea, news of the test flight crept into reporting of North Korea's recent short-range missile launches and even of North Korean envoy Choe Yong-hae's visit to China. The Associated Press, Reuters, and RIA Novosti also covered the Minuteman launch in the context of tensions on the Korean Peninsula. All of this is exactly what the United States did not want.

The unintended link prodded Pyongyang to respond with more fiery words. Since the Pentagon's announcement, the North Korean propaganda machine has painted the planned launch as yet another demonstration of the U.S. imperialists' relentless adherence to their "hostile policy." It asserted that a U.S. Minuteman test will bring "dark clouds of a missile race to hang over North East Asia" and warned that "intercontinental missiles [are] by no means a monopoly of the U.S."

This may seem like typical North Korean posturing, but it's not. Between January 1996 and April 2013, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) mentioned the Minuteman only once -- in relation to details leaked from the 2002 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review. (When slamming U.S. "warmongering," North Korean propaganda usually references the specific weapons system being brandished. However, even searches for general mentions of U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles yield only around a dozen results.) However, since the Pentagon's delay, there have been three specific mentions of the "Minuteman." All berate the decision to proceed with the launch.

In contrast, from January 1996 to the present, KCNA condemned the B-2 approximately 52 times and the B-52 approximately 126 times. References to U.S. ballistic missile submarines are slightly more difficult to count, as North Korean propaganda happily muddies the distinction between nuclear-powered and nuclear-weapons submarines. KCNA citations of U.S. "nuclear-powered submarines" number in the hundreds, and they often refer to ballistic missile subs. In addition, there are 17 references to Ohio-class submarines -- most of which carry ballistic missiles -- and to specific submarines within that class.

Apparently, North Korea has not been scared of all U.S. nuclear weapons equally. Platforms that have been directly linked to U.S. extended deterrence guarantees for Japan and South Korea, or that can be theater-deployed, seem to be the ones that keep the Korean People's Army up at night. Bombers and submarines can be incorporated into U.S.-South Korean military exercises in the region, which North Korea allegedly fears might be used as a veil for a sneak attack against them. After all, military exercises are the cover Kim Il-Sung used to start the Korean War. KCNA spelled out its concerns with the air and naval legs of the deterrent in March: "What should not be overlooked is that the U.S. picked up B-52 and nuclear-powered submarines out of these nuclear strike means... for a nuclear strike drill under the simulated conditions of actual war against the DPRK."

ICBMs housed in North Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana cannot be theater-deployed or used to visibly signal U.S. alliance commitments to South Korea and Japan. Perhaps that is why, when a Minuteman III took off from Vandenberg AFB in the middle of the July 2006 crisis with North Korea, Pyongyang did not notice or did not care. Nevertheless, the Pentagon may have felt that delaying the April 2013 Minuteman flight test was a necessary precaution. This is a decision for which Hagel should not be chided.

But why not simply postpone the test launch and stay mute? Few outside of the U.S. defense community would have noticed the absence of the launch, and even fewer would have publicly remarked upon it. Delaying forced the Pentagon to explain the situation repeatedly -- problematic when it was insisting that the launch was irrelevant to a particular geostrategic context -- and the rescheduling itself became a news event.

Aside from creating something of a public relations mess, the Minuteman launch may further exacerbate North Korea's inferiority complex. Instead of firing a Musudan intermediate-range missile as many had feared, the only thing North Korea has sent flying so far this year are short-range rockets. Rather anti-climactic. But Pyongyang may feel that pressure is mounting for it to back up its recent threats with a demonstrated, longer-range missile capability or face significantly diminishing returns on its rhetoric. After all, if anything could draw unwarranted attention to -- and belittle -- North Korea's short-range firings, it is having its sworn enemy demonstrate an extremely accurate intercontinental range missile capability immediately thereafter.

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